California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)

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Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.

 

 

Bonus Post: 2 Novels about Slavery

Washington Black     Esi Edugyan     (2018)

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Edugyan’s fictional slave narrative, set in the 1830s, artfully establishes itself in the brutal realities of the sugar cane fields of Barbados before drawing readers into grand continent-hopping sequences that take on the quality of myth.  

George Washington Black is about 11 years old in the opening sequence in 1830, narrating his first-person account in language that is evocative of the era and yet unpretentious. We quickly grasp that “Wash,” as he is known, is an exceptional fellow. Right away, readers will want to learn how he develops from an uneducated and maltreated cane-cutter to become not only literate but also eloquent. Wash’s facility with realistic drawing propels him into the protective orbit of Christopher (“Titch”) Wilde, the scientist brother of the plantation slave master. Titch and Wash escape Barbados in a hot-air balloon, ending up first in Norfolk, Virginia, and then in the Arctic reaches of Canada. Wash becomes more and more proficient in marine biology, especially in technical illustrations, as he travels to London, Amsterdam, and north Africa, seeking acceptance and hoping for love. He’s marked not just by his skin color but by a facial disfigurement from an accident, an undesirable identifier as he flees slave catchers.  

Novelist Edugyan probes the inhumanity of the institution of slavery, certainly, but more notably she analyzes the motivations of the abolitionists who aid Wash. Do they truly view the enslaved Africans as equals, or do they want to save white slaveholders from eternal punishment for their viciousness? Edugyan also does an excellent job of portraying the enthusiasms of 19th-century scientists, in an era when the field of inquiry was vast and the methodology was still under development. Her ending to Washington Black is somewhat ambiguous, but then I like tidy wrap-ups, and life is seldom so orderly.  

The Eulogist     Terry Gamble     (2019)

Terry Gamble’s novel is set in the very same era as Esi Edugyan’s, but The Eulogist takes place in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, right on the border between the free states and the slave states of pre-Civil-War America.  

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The fictional first-person narrator, Olivia Givens, is an 86-year-old woman writing in 1890, looking back at her astounding early life. Olivia’s family of well-educated Protestants emigrate from Ireland in 1819, settling in Cincinnati. Olivia’s mother promptly dies in childbirth, and her father soon deserts his teenage children, Olivia, Erasmus, and James. James builds a successful business through hard work and a shrewd marriage, while Erasmus, latching onto religious evangelism, becomes an itinerant preacher despite his continuing habits of debauchery. Olivia, a woman who defies convention, marries a local doctor and is drawn into the many dramas of her husband’s slave-owning family in Kentucky. Slowly, slowly, the Givenses come to espouse the abolitionist cause, mainly because of their individual interactions with slaves.  

Olivia’s story is frank and at times drolly comical. Her language has a 19th-century tone and vocabulary (“Erasmus looked as peaked as an Ohio winter” [38]). The narrator and her readers know the horrors that will unfold with the Civil War, but her characters in the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s do not. This knowledge gives the novel a taut and expectant quality. Gamble’s plot is intricate, with the final connections not offered until the last chapter, and then only briefly. As I read this book, I kept wondering, Who is the eulogist of the title? This question also is answered in the last chapter, and I won’t spoil it for you.  

Both Washington Black, reviewed above, and The Eulogist are excellent novels that explore the issue of slavery in depth, without resorting to stereotypes or platitudes.

Forced Emigration

Without a Country     Ayşe Kulin     (2016)

Translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Dakan     (2018)

In the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, German universities, funded by the government there, were highly esteemed. American students trekked off to Germany to pursue graduate degrees in both the humanities and the sciences. German research publications influenced scholars around the world. However, when Nazi oppression of Jews stepped up in the 1930s, many of the faculty in German universities and medical schools—Jews and those critical of the Nazi regime—were forced to emigrate. Although I knew these historical facts, until I read Without a Country, I had no idea that dozens of German scholars took positions in Turkey, which was building up its educational system in the years just prior to World War II.

In Without a Country, Ayşe Kulin tells the story of one German Jewish scholar and his family who leave everything behind in Frankfurt so that he can take a position in Istanbul in 1933. According to an author’s note, an actual German pathologist inspired the fictional character of Gerhard Schliemann, who lands a job in Turkey and negotiates with the Turkish government to find job placements in Istanbul and Ankara for many other German academics and physicians. Schliemann’s descendants grow up in Turkey and navigate the paths of nationality and religion in varied ways. The Schliemann family and their friends evolve not only as German/Turkish/American but also as Jewish/Muslim/Christian, some practicing, most not.

That’s the basic premise of this intriguing family saga that provides, in three sections, scenes from the 1930s/1940s, the 1960s, and then the present day. Most of the action is set against the magnificent scenery of Turkey, especially the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, city of ancient churches, mosques, and palaces. Political movements and political unrest play out in the background; I fact-checked a few of the historical references and found them to be accurate. In a sense, novelist Kulin is telling the story of modern Turkey through her fiction.

In the first section of the book readers get brief scenes depicting significant incidents in the lives of the Schliemann family. The details of their escape from Nazi Germany to a welcoming Turkey are absorbing, and the individual characters come to life. Even in the second section, Gerhard and his wife, Elsa, remain in the story as their children and grandchildren take center stage. I was disappointed, however, in the final section of the book, which shifts from third-person narration to first-person, with the narrator being Esra, the great-granddaughter of Gerhard and Elsa. The multi-generational family chronicle is diluted as readers hear little or nothing of the fates of beloved characters from previous decades. The novel would have been much stronger if the contemporary section had been expanded considerably.

Still, I recommend Without a Country for its depiction of people in a multicultural society in an area of the world that has seen much discord. As Gerhard was “without a country” when he left Germany in the 1930s, so his great-granddaughter Esra will be “without a country” if she leaves Turkey in the present day. Kulin has a keen awareness of the sacrifices, compromises, and heroism of families caught in the tumult of history.

A Novel with Heart

The Ice House     Laura Lee Smith     (2017)

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When I reviewed Laura Lee Smith’s previous novel, Heart of Palm, I resolved to read The Ice House as soon as my local library ordered it. Here is a novelist who can weave a complex plot and manage to tuck in all the seemingly loose threads by the end. She can conjure up characters who are like people you know, maybe because their conversations are so convincing. She can take you inside a manufacturing plant (in The Ice House, it's a company that produces those bags of crystal clear ice) and make you feel as if you’re getting a personal tour, from the production floor to the administrative offices to the parking lot. Best of all, her novels have heart. Her characters wrestle with tough decisions in their lives, and they do the very best that they can. They’re imperfect but basically likeable.

The Ice House is set mainly in Jacksonville, in the same sector of Florida as Heart of Palm, and once again, the oppressive heat of the region is highlighted. In The Ice House, the outdoor weather contrasts with the mandatory frigidness of the ice-making plant, where workers wear heavy parkas year round. One of the owners of the plant, Johnny MacKinnon, bears the nickname “Ice,” and a chunk of the novel’s action takes place in the chilly northern reaches of Scotland, where Johnny grew up and where his ex-wife, son, and granddaughter live.

“Johnny’s father used to have a saying: And as soon as you’re oot one load o’ shite, there’s another.” (30)  This is how the arc of the narrative works, with one catastrophe after another occurring for the main characters. Johnny is facing surgery for what may be brain cancer. He’s estranged from his adult son, who’s a heroin addict. And his ice company is being charged with negligence for a leak of ammonia gas; the potential fines would wipe out the business. Minor characters also encounter serious problems. My favorite struggler is Chemal, the Puerto Rican teenager who lives next door to Johnny. Chemal becomes a Sancho Panza of sorts to Johnny’s Don Quixote as they take off on a hasty, ill-advised trip to Scotland.

The Ice House is about trying to reconcile the issues in life when death comes stalking. It’s about showing compassion and accepting the differences in the people around you. And I found the ending highly satisfying. 

The Upper-Middle-Class Façade

Little Fires Everywhere     Celeste Ng     (2017)

Ah, adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The first chapter of Little Fires Everywhere lures the reader in with a blazing house, then backtracks about a year to paint portraits of the four teenaged Richardson children who resided in that house (Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy)--plus the new 15-year-old in town, Pearl Warren. The Richardson family lives the American Dream, with trendy clothes and cars, luxurious vacations, and bright career prospects for the kids. Most of the Richardsons are also selfish and self-centered. Pearl, in contrast, is a smart but naïve vagabond who roams the country in an old VW Rabbit with her single mother, Mia, who’s an accomplished photographic artist. Pearl and Mia rent an apartment in a Shaker Heights duplex owned by Mrs Richardson and furnish it sparsely with castoffs, in distinct contrast to the elegant six-bedroom Richardson mansion. Tellingly, Ng refers to most adults as “Mrs” and “Mr,” but Mia Warren is always “Mia.”

The social commentary on economic inequality and lifestyle choices inherent in this setup would be enough to fuel a novel—and a spectacular house fire. But novelist Celeste Ng plunges far, far deeper into the problems in Shaker Heights, where she herself has lived. This suburb of Cleveland was established early in the 20th century as a planned community, with rigid rules about all aspects of outward appearance and organization. Near the end of the book, Izzy Richardson thinks about “life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what a mess lay within.” (323)

The “mess” behind the gorgeous façade of Shaker Heights includes unplanned pregnancy, controversial interracial adoption, prejudice against immigrants, unethical journalism, and parents who pay little attention to their wayward kids. Ng’s narrative is complex, with multiple strands tightly interwoven, and all her characters, no matter how peripheral, are drawn with exquisite care. The reading becomes unstoppable as the novel barrels along toward the fire that will inevitably consume the Richardson home.

The “little fires” of the title are the blazes on the gasoline-soaked beds that the arsonist lights. But these fires are also the incendiary issues shoved under the beds of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. Ng doesn’t preach; she shows.

Bonus Post: A Woman in the Chem Lab

Chemistry     Weike Wang     (2017)

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Don’t let this book fool you. The simple declarative sentences and frequent thematic tangents might lead you to believe that it’s the work of an unsophisticated novelist. Not so. Weike Wang makes her readers think hard about the role of immigrants in American society, about the difficulties that women (of any race) face in choosing careers in the sciences, and about the tensions between the personal and the professional in the lives of talented people.

No one in Chemistry except the narrator’s boyfriend, Eric, is given a name, which emphasizes the universality of this tale. The first-person narrator is a young woman who should be heading into her final year of a doctoral program in chemistry at a prestigious university—never named but presumably Harvard. She’s Chinese American, brought to the United States as a young child and raised by parents who would make Amy Chua of Tiger Mother fame seem tame. Boyfriend Eric is a paragon, a white guy who has had spectacular success in pursuing science degrees and who is just embarking on what will undoubtedly be a rewarding academic career. He wants to marry the narrator, but she demurs, worried about forfeiting her intellectual capacity. Added to this tension is a side plot about the narrator’s best friend, a physician in New York, who talks to the narrator frequently on the phone. On the edges of the novel are also students whom the narrator tutors in math and science topics.

Readers glimpse about two years of the narrator’s life, as she gets counseling to help with her decisions, eats a great deal of carryout pizza, drinks too much wine, and muses about scientific topics ranging from the details of electrical circuitry to the discovery of radium. Should she plow on with the doctorate even though the highly competitive lab work no longer gives her any joy? Should she marry Eric, a man very well suited to her personality and intelligence, even though he can never fully understand her family’s culture and language? If she doesn’t pursue chemistry, what should she do with her life? And if she moves to the Midwest to follow Eric, should she take her comical, untrainable dog with her?

The narrator touches on these questions, wanders off, and then circles back to them. Chemistry doesn’t give readers all the answers, but that’s it’s charm. And Weike Wang is an author to watch.

Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part I

Go, Went, Gone     Jenny Erpenbeck     (in German, 2015)

Translated by Sarah Bernofsky     (in English, 2017)

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Richard is retiring from his position as a classics professor in Berlin. In his university office, he packs up books, clears out drawers, sorts stacks of papers. His next steps are somewhat unclear, both to him and to us as readers. Maybe he’ll write some journal articles. Maybe he’ll kick back and take his boat out on the lake on which his suburban house is situated. Richard is a widower with no children, no close family, and an ex-mistress who is no longer part of his life; he does have a good circle of friends.

By chance, Richard walks by some refugees who are protesting the poor living conditions in a ramshackle tent village in a city park. In Germany, the refugee crisis is not abstract but obvious from makeshift camps and from daily news reports. Ever the academic, Richard wonders about the backgrounds of the refugees flooding his country. He decides to do some background reading, particularly on conflict in African nations, and he draws up a list of questions to ask individual refugees from Africa. It’s unclear what the end product of this “research” will be. Will he produce some written piece? If so, will he come down as pro-refugee or anti-refugee?  Without much trouble, Richard gains access to a group of African refugees housed in an abandoned building near his home, and he starts working through his question list. (I’ll pass over the potential ethical issue of failing to seek permission for doing research on human subjects!)

Go, Went, Gone holds many layers of meaning, and as a reader you can unpeel as many of these as you want. For instance, as Richard gets more and more involved with the refugees, he’s reminded of lines in classical literature that speak to moral quandaries. He’s trying to figure out how Germans should respond to the situation, all the while Erpenbeck reminds us, by brief references to online forums, of a thriving racist element in German society.

The novel is set in the present day, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has left residual tensions between West and East, between capitalism and communism. Richard lived for decades under an oppressive regime in East Berlin, so he’s receiving a pension that’s significantly less than that of his counterparts who worked in West Berlin. Still, in some ways he’s a beneficiary of the removal of the Wall:  “Who deserves credit for the fact that even the less affluent among their circle [in the former East Berlin] now have dishwashers in their kitchens, wine bottles on their shelves, and double-glazed windows? But if this prosperity couldn’t be attributed to their own personal merit, then by the same token the refugees weren’t to blame for their reduced circumstances. Things might have turned out the other way around. For a moment, this thought opens its jaws wide, displaying its frightening teeth.” (95)

As Richard’s views on the refugees are slowly, slowly developing, small incidents take on larger meaning. Here it’s windblown dust on leaves: “The Sirocco . . . came from Africa and across the Alps, sometimes even bringing a bit of desert sand along with it. And indeed, on the leaves of the grapevines you could see the fine, ruddy dust that had made its way from Africa. Richard had run his finger across one of the leaves and observed how this small gesture produced a sudden shift in his perspective and sense of scale. Now, too, he is experiencing such a moment; he is reminded that one person’s vantage point is just as valid as another’s, and in seeing, there is no right, no wrong.” (55) Bodies of water take on a liminal quality, marking some critical transition. Richard thinks often about the lake in his backyard, which holds the body, never found, of a man who presumably drowned a couple of months before the novel begins. This sad fact reminds Richard of the thousands of refugees who’ve drowned in dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean.

Novelist Erpenbeck could easily have slid into didacticism or preachiness, but she doesn’t. She juxtaposes the quotidian activities of Richard’s life (making toast, taking his car in for service) with his increasing existential concerns about the direction of his life and the direction of the world around him. She presents the refugees mostly as benign figures, victims of civil wars or sectarian repression in their native countries, but not every refugee is honest or honorable.

Sarah Berofsky’s translation of this novel is exceptionally good, especially considering the difficulties of dealing with characters who are presented as speaking in many different languages. Richard himself speaks German, English, Russian, and Italian, in addition to his fluency in ancient Greek and Latin. He communicates with the refugees mostly in English and Italian—many of them crossed the Mediterranean and landed first in Italy. They work hard to learn the language of each country they arrive in, with the hope of remaining. The “go, went, gone” of the title refers to their language learning, since the conjugation of the German verb for “to go” (gehen, ging, gegangen) is important to eventual fluency. The title also refers to the constant “going” of the refugees, their peregrinations from one European nation to another, from one government office to another, from one squalid camp to another, in hopes of finding asylum and work.

Very few books written in other languages get translated into English. I try to report on a few of them on this blog, to reveal non-Anglophone patterns of thought. Go, Went, Gone is a brilliant and profound novel that you should not miss.

Watch for my upcoming review of Here in Berlin by Cristina García, under the heading "Moral Quandaries in Berlin, Part 2."

Irishmen at the 1939 World's Fair

The World of Tomorrow     Brendan Mathews     (2017)

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The cover of this novel depicts the key setting: New York in 1939, site of the World’s Fair, with its theme and slogan “The World of Tomorrow.” When you open the book, the endpapers offer a map of the fairgrounds, with the iconic trylon and perisphere structures, which are also on the back cover.

Brendan Mathews compresses almost all the action of his novel into one week in New York City in early June of 1939, a time when the Great Depression had eased, when the future in America seemed bright, when World War II was still unimaginable to most Americans, despite the actions of Hitler in Europe. Three Irish brothers are at the center of a large cast of characters. Francis Dempsey has fled Ireland after a prison break and a run-in with the Irish Republican Army that left him, unexpectedly, with a bundle of cash. With Francis is his brother Michael, a disenchanted seminarian who has been severely injured by an IRA bomb. Francis and Michael assume fake identities when they arrive in New York, but they do seek out the third brother, Martin, who is married to Rosemary and has two daughters. We learn about Rosemary’s complicated family history in New York, and we also pick up the stories of other characters who will cross paths with the Dempseys. Irish expatriate Tom Cronin is a retired hit man who is called back to the city to retrieve the cash that Francis lifted from the IRA. Lilly Bloch is a Jewish street photographer from Czechoslovakia who’s on a limited visa in New York but is hesitant to return to her home and her fiancé given the Nazi presence in Prague.

The plot can be as rollicking as a slapstick Laurel and Hardy movie of the period, and when Mathews is in this mode, the pages turn themselves, especially in the climatic final scenes at the World’s Fair. However, I did find Mathews’s supernatural elements sometimes hard to swallow. The shell-shocked Michael has long conversations with the ghost of the poet William Butler Yeats. This is a way for readers to know what Michael, who cannot speak, is thinking, but it can get tedious.

Quibbling aside, The World of Tomorrow is serious and well written historical fiction, weaving in the funding of IRA terrorism by Irish Americans, the role of women in the mid-twentieth century, the political corruption of New York, and the competitive jazz scene of the city. Here is Martin, dragging home at dawn from a jazz gig: “. . . the early-morning hours were his favorite. Walking a nearly vacant street, with only a couple slouched against each other in the distance, steam drifting lazily from a manhole, a splash of neon thrown into a puddle, an after-hours bar whose last diligent drinkers hunched over their highball glasses—this was the New York he had come seeking.” (45-46)

Hanging over all the narrative is the reader’s knowledge of what is to come:  “The World of Tomorrow” will be postponed until after a long, devastating war that stretched around the globe. In the closing pages of the novel, Mathews spells this out: “. . . the story of the months and years ahead would be broadcast in boldface headlines and urgent radio bulletins. It would be told in V-Mail and telegrams from the War Department and in prayers offered in church. More than they could know, it would be written in silences, absences, and empty spaces. But the story of those years would also be told in love letters saved and bundled in ribbon, and in songs dreamed up during nights in the barracks, and in the warmth of the spotlight before the first note was sung, and in sunlit hours when it was possible to believe that everyone you had lost was only late, and would be home soon enough.” (546)

The Immigrant Experience

The Leavers     Lisa Ko     (2017)

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Adoption has been the subject of several books I’ve reviewed recently, including Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Celine, Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. The yearning of some adopted children to find their birth mothers—or of birth mothers to find their biological children—can be a powerful theme for a novel. Lisa Ko takes a slightly different approach to adoption, and in the process she illuminates the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The immigrants in this story work long hours in difficult jobs to provide food and shelter for their loved ones. They have to make heart-rending decisions in their struggle to survive. As the dust jacket tells us, “The Leavers won the 2016 PEN Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.”

In The Leavers, Deming Guo was born in the United States, but his mother, Polly/Peilan, is an undocumented immigrant from Fujian province in China. She owes large sums to the loan shark who brought her to New York. One day when Deming is in fifth grade in the Bronx, Polly fails to return from her job at a nail salon and disappears from his life. Deming is fostered and then adopted by a well-meaning but misguided white couple in upstate New York and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. Deming/Daniel is the only Asian kid in the quiet community where he spends his teen years, and he constantly longs for his old city neighborhood and for any information about what happened to his birth mother. As novelist Lisa Ko encapsulates the problem, “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.” (270)

As Daniel moves into his twenties, he becomes involved in the music scene in New York City, as a composer and performer.  He routinely experiences synesthesia: “Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t included violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.” (71) And music keeps him going when he sees no other future for himself:  “A song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.” (258)

Polly and Daniel both have their flaws—Polly is often self-centered, Daniel develops a gambling addiction. I think that these characteristics help to keep the novel from falling into clichés. The Leavers alternates between Daniel’s side of the story and Polly’s, between New York and China, gradually revealing what happened on that day when Polly vanished. Did she take the bus to Florida, where she’d talked about relocating? Did the loan shark send her back to China? Did she leave her son (as well as her kindly boyfriend) for a new lover? Did she get hit by a truck? I won’t spoil the ending. I will say that, although the reason for Polly’s disappearance makes sense, the reason for her long-term absence from Daniel’s life doesn’t ring true for me.

However, as usual, I loved the parts of The Leavers that were set in New York City, which is beloved by Daniel:  “Daniel saw the Manhattan skyline, recognized the sketched spire of the Empire State Building, the sparkle of bridges, and from this vantage point the city appeared vulnerable and twinkling, the last strands of sunshine swept across the arches as if lulling them to sleep, painting shadows against the tops of buildings. No matter how many times he saw the city’s outline he pitched inside.” (110)

There are many kinds of “leaving” in this novel. Polly leaves China, and then she leaves her son. Daniel leaves the Bronx, but then he leaves upstate New York to return to the city. In a way, all of us are “leavers,” since we make choices in life that involve leaving other options behind.

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

Chinese American Metafiction

The Fortunes     Peter Ho Davies     (2016)

Peter Ho Davies has crafted a heartbreaking metafictional novel about the experience of being Chinese American. I was skeptical at first about the designation of “novel,” since the dust jacket details four separate sections, each with distinct characters, set in various time periods over the past 150 years. Perhaps, I thought, this is another book of short stories, like Davies’s two previous collections. By the time I’d finished reading The Fortunes, however, I could see that it is a novel, with the sections linked in hundreds of intricate ways. It may even be that the first three sections of the novel are intended as the fictional work of the fictional main character in the fourth section, hence the “metafictional” designation. Got all that?

It plays out in this way. The first section, “Gold: Celestial Railroad,” is about Ah Ling, a half-Chinese, half-white immigrant to California during the building of the railroads in the 1860s. First as a laundry worker and then as servant to Charles Crocker, a railroad baron, Ah Ling is thrust into controversies over Chinese labor on the Central Pacific Railroad. Throughout this section, the longest of the book, Ah Ling struggles with his identity, his relationship to other Chinese Americans, and his place in the emerging society of the American West.

Next, in “Silver: Your Name in Chinese,” we meet Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actor in the early days of Hollywood. Wong is portrayed as holding her own in an industry that blatantly discriminates against Asian Americans, routinely casting white actors to play Asian characters. Wong gets lesser roles as temptresses or discarded mistresses. Off camera she takes on numerous white lovers, both male and female.

Moving ahead in time to 1982, the section titled “Jade: Tell it Slant” recounts the story of Vincent Chin, an unarmed man who was beaten to death with a baseball bat by two Detroit auto workers angered by the rise of Japanese auto manufacturing. They thought Chin, a Chinese American, was Japanese. The narrator in this section is a friend of Chin’s who fled the scene and feels guilty about it even thirty years later. Since I live in southeast Michigan, I’m very familiar with this crime and with the lack of punishment for the perpetrators. Still, I found the grisly descriptions of Chin’s death hard to read. It’s small comfort that the Vincent Chin case brought to the public’s attention the racist attitudes toward Asian Americans in our nation.

Finally, in “Pearl: Disorientation,” we meet Chinese American John Ling Smith in the present day. Smith (who has a white father and a Chinese mother) and his wife (who is Irish American) are in China to pick up a baby they are adopting. We learn that Smith has begun to write a historical novel about the Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad. He’s also made a start on books about Anna May Wong and the Vincent Chin case, but he hasn’t completed any of these projects. He feels vaguely guilty that he holds a university teaching position.

Aha—this is where the reader sees some metafictional possibilities. Maybe the preceding sections of The Fortunes are actually John Ling Smith’s unfinished attempts to make sense of the Chinese American experience in the United States. The first three sections of the book, after all, feature historical characters, albeit in fictional scenarios. Smith is totally fictional, but his fictional character is grappling with the same issues of racial discrimination and cultural assimilation that Ah Ling and Anna May Wong and Vincent Chin faced.

Davies doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the racist attacks on Chinese Americans, both verbal and physical. I was taken aback by the huge number of offensive epithets, jokes, and fake accents that Asian Americans endure—about the folds of their eyes, the size of their genitals, and the tone of their skin. The most extreme attack is the brutal murder of Vincent Chin.

The connections that Davies creates between the four sections of his novel astonished me at every page. The word “jade” comes up as the color of the water that Chinese immigrants see on their journey across the Pacific Ocean, as the cigarette holder of Anna May Wong, as the elephant charm on a neck chain that Vincent Chin is wearing when he dies, and as the trinkets that adoptive parents buy when they are in China to pick up their babies. Elephants (real and toy) keep appearing, as do bamboo cages and baskets. Railroad cars trundle in and out of the stories. In 1860s California, the bones of dead railroad workers are carefully sent back to China; in circa-2000 China, John Ling Smith marvels at the unearthing and reconstruction of the Terra Cotta Army, part of a necropolis for an ancient Chinese emperor. We’re told that Smith attended college at Caltech, having been rejected by Stanford; the historical figure Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University, appears in Ah Ling’s story. The linkages go on and on.

Every person interacting with society must grapple at least occasionally with questions of identity, class, and status. Chinese Americans also carry the weight of one of the great cultures in the history of the world. Davies’ characters straddle East and West; read this novel to see how they handle it.